With its blinding white teeth, high-gloss production design and glib, bloodless violence, “The Magnificent Seven” plays like Baby’s First Western: It’s less a remake of John Sturges’s classic 1960 Western (which was itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 classic “Seven Samurai”) than its easy-reader version, an attractive piece of pop-culture revisionism designed less for connoisseurship than bright-and-shiny distraction.
That “The Magnificent Seven” achieves such astonishing visual luster and philosophical shallowness should surprise no one familiar with its director, Antoine Fuqua. Working with all the classic Western tropes – the dusty 19th-century town besieged by a rapacious villain, the charismatic stranger who arrives to save the day by swaggering through the swinging doors of a lively saloon (where the tinkling piano goes silent right on cue) and the ragtag team of misfits and mercenaries who make it their gun-twirlin’, sharpshootin’ business to do good while doing bad – Fuqua delivers yet another competently executed exercise in the aggressive action and slick, vainglorious style that he has brought both to better-than-average movies (“Training Day,” “Southpaw”) and no-better-than-average movies (“Olympus Has Fallen,” “The Equalizer”).
Less forgivable is a script, by “True Detective” writers Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk, that is content to revert to cliché, obviousness and overkill when it might have sought depth and surprise. The big twist in this “Magnificent Seven” is the heterogeneity of its cast: Sam Chisolm, the tall, handsome stranger who agrees to save the oppressed people of Rose Creek, is played by Denzel Washington, and the crew he lines up to help him in his chivalric quest hews to the one-of-each demographics familiar to anyone who has watched a World War II bomber movie or “Fast & Furious”: There’s a Native American named Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier); a Mexican named Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo); a “Chinaman” knife-fighter named Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee); a former Confederate marksman named Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke); a portly, grizzled hermit named Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio); and a smirking smart-aleck named Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt).
There also happens to be a female member of the bunch, a damsel played with a refreshing lack of distress by Haley Bennett. But clearly gender equity was a bridge too far for the filmmakers who, as one character says, seem interested mainly in blowing stuff up. With Peter Sarsgaard playing the movie’s slimy bad guy – a robber baron named Bart Bogue, who delivers an oily opening speech that clearly defines capitalism as the Real Enemy – all the elements are in place for a story designed to hit its marks with the uncanny precision of the heroes’ bullets, blades, flaming arrows and fists. Everything reaches its intended target in this “Magnificent Seven,” with little or no consequence beyond tasteful dabs of cherry-red blood.
Indeed, the violence is so extravagant and merciless (at one point, someone pulls out a Gatling gun for maximum carnage), yet so sanitized that it makes the viewer long for the far riskier likes of Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” and “Hateful Eight,” not to mention the Coen brothers’ somber, rigorously moral take on “True Grit.” Nowhere near that amount of thoughtfulness has gone into “The Magnificent Seven,” which prefers a winking, just-kidding tone and cartoonish set pieces to genuine substance.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the characters, who fail to come alive despite some admittedly terrific performances: Hawke and Washington are particularly good as a gun-shy veteran and a steady-handed alpha male, respectively. But Pratt can’t bring enough of his practiced, good-natured ease to make Faraday anything more than an obnoxious poser.
As for the rest of the Seven, each gets his contractually stipulated moment of coolness in showdowns that are staged more like carefully manicured magazine photo shoots than life-or-death fights to the finish. They’re cogs in what has become Hollywood’s larger operation, which is to mine cinema’s historical archive for convenient properties to retool with hip casts and catchy gimmicks.
“The Magnificent Seven” is fine as far as it goes, but – especially when the familiar strains of the 1960 theme song begin wafting over the final scenes – one can’t help feeling that it should have gone much further.
Two stars. Rated PG-13. Contains extended and intense sequences of Western violence, historical smoking, some profanity and suggestive material. 132 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.